Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mali Kouanchao's "Solo"

Solo, Mixed Media, 2009, 44 x 58

Created by Lao Minnesotan artist Mali Kouanchao, Solo is part of her Displacement II: Never Free series examining the journey of Khmer refugees who were deported from the United States of America to Phnom Penh.

Lately in her artist statements, she has described Solo by saying "Part of my work is to navigate a way to document not merely the external surface lives of the deportees but their inner lives. Not only as individuals, but as new communities. A piece like Solo experiments with pop art and modern approaches to shake audiences from the cliched expectations of what a refugee and a Cambodian American looks like."

It hasn't been displayed widely but is arguably one of the key examples of what she has been reaching towards over the last decade. It's colorful yet chaotic, accurate but often seemingly fragmented, much like the Southeast Asian refugee narrative. How can one image tell enough of a moment in time among those whose lives so often seem to teeter on the edge of history's ashbins?

How do we evaluate it? Do we compare it to the work of others? If so, then what are the other key works by Southeast Asian Americans we need to know? Who is creating work addressing the issues of social justice, particularly immigration reform? Are these the questions we might see examined in the work of Andy Warhol or other pop artists from the mainstream community?  

It is fair to ask where does an image like this fit next to Campbell's Soup I or Basquiat's Untitled (Skull) or the work of Hugh Tran. Warhol's concern with his body of work was the dehumanization that took place when one encountered an image enough times. Meaning is a slippery enough thing within art as it is. We struggle to say: "This blob of paint, that line, that texture embodies an idea that means something to you in your experience and culture."  When we create a piece like Solo that will speak to mainstream, Khmer and Lao audiences in different ways, how does the artist's message and critique retain potency and coherence?

When we look at Andy Warhol's repeating Campbell's soup cans or Marilyn Monroes, or anyone's, where is the point where it has lost meaning?

Yet, we so rarely encounter an image like Solo or any image of modern Khmer, especially as seen by a Lao woman. How many times would we need to see this, or something like this, until it has gained or lost meaning?

Of course, we might also ask: Amid all of the garish, flamboyant colors, is this effective in capturing the inner spirit of the subject and the cultures that form him? Does it move you to learn more, or does it erect a barrier that keeps you distant and disengaged with his experience? Many of us are are accustomed to the dour images of the Khmer in the aftermath of the Killing Fields that we've become enured to such iconography. What will keep the visual language of the Khmer, or any community's experience fresh, but accurate?

Warhol felt that embracing dehumanization was absurd, and his body of work attempted to bring that critique forward. For cultures who've experienced the apex of dehumanization such as the Killing Fields even as contemporary social forces attempt to commodify them and reduce them to cogs for corporations, how should their art or the art of their neighbors who are witness to this respond? How do we create art that defies the machinery Warhol and others despised, even as others like Takashi Murakami seem to embrace it through movements such as Hiropon Factory?

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